Twitter Arguments

A theory of change

semachthemonkey/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

The kind of activism I do has a serious structural barrier: it’s esoteric. Even today, tech-policy issues are extremely niche. Indeed, tech-policy is a niche within a niche —most people have little technical knowledge and most people have little policy expertise, and the stuff I do requires that you have some of both.

Now, this lack of niche expertise is self-correcting. Today, millions of Facebook users don’t like the service and would like to leave, but can’t — Facebook has locked them in. This makes it a lot easier to talk about the problems of lock-in and the benefits of interoperability, but, unfortunately, the reason it’s easier to talk about this stuff is that billions of people have been trapped by Facebook and face endless abuse at the company’s hands.

It would have been great if this debate had gone mainstream before Facebook colonized the internet and trapped billions of users, amassing a vast war-chest it can spend to defend its dominance. Prevention is always preferable to remediation.

I call this the “peak indifference” model of social change. If we ignore a problem long enough, eventually it will worsen to the point where we can’t ignore it anymore. This isn’t a good way to solve problems! By the time a problem is so manifestly real that it can’t be denied, untold damage has been done, and even more unavoidable harms are on the way.

Think of the climate emergency. At this point, with fires and floods upon us, climate denialists have become an endangered species. The good news is that this means we might finally start taking the issue seriously. The bad news is that it took so long that that we let millions suffer and die, and more death and destruction are on our horizon.

Like climate activism, tech-policy activism tries to mobilize people to act to prevent harms that require both a technical and policy background. And like climate activism, tech-policy activism can’t afford to wait until the disaster is undeniably upon us before acting.

Getting people to see that there is a problem, and to appreciate its urgency, is an uphill battle.

And that’s why I argue with strangers on Twitter.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the reasons not to get into Twitter fights: you’ll never change someone’s mind by arguing with them on Twitter; attempting to do so just feeds the trolls; there’s no room for nuance in 280 characters.

This is all true, and it’s a great reason not to try to change your adversary’s mind on Twitter.

But there’s a far better reason to argue on Twitter than changing a stranger’s mind by rebutting their arguments: changing other peoples’ minds by running circles around them.

In tech-policy debates, I am usually adverse to both Big Tech and its critics. Big Tech wants to rule our digital lives. Its critics concede that Big Tech will rule our digital lives, but demand that they do so wisely. Neither of these is a good outcome. Neither one of these is technological self-determination, the right for individuals and communities to choose how the technology they use works, to accommodate their needs, their disabilities, their preferences, and their desires. We must accept no less — seize the means of computation!

I believe these are the critical issues of our day — not as important as the climate emergency, to be sure, but without a free, fair and open digital world, we can’t hope to organize to address the climate emergency. Good tech policy is the necessary-but-insufficient precondition for good climate policy and good health policy and good housing, race, gender and labor policy.

But it’s esoteric. By the time the problems with giving Big Tech a free rein are visible, vast harms have already been inflicted and more are yet to come. Likewise for the harms inflicted by ill-conceived regulations that try to fix the tech companies, rather than the internet.

Twitter is a machine for producing and circulating bad takes on these complex issues. It produces a perennial Dunning-Kruger bumper crop of people with big audiences who either credulously trust the tech companies to solve the problems they created; or who credulously trust that lawmakers who harness (rather than shatter) Big Tech’s power will only use it to bring tech barons to heel, rather than joining forces with them to subjugate us.

That’s where arguing with people on Twitter can do real good. Everyone who follows me already knows how I feel about these issues. I might be able to convince them to sign a petition or boycott a product, but there are far more people who don’t follow me, and reaching some of them is how I try to increase the pool of people who’ve overcome peak indifference, who understand the gravity and urgency of the tech-policy emergency.

Arguing with people who are out of their depth on tech and/or policy is a way to reach their followers and other by-standers — people who haven’t really considered the issue, and who might not sit still to read an essay or listen to a speech about the subject, but who will watch a juicy Twitter argument.

This is how the stubborn and foolish redeem themselves. By not knowing when they’re out of their depth, they create a space where I can develop a complex argument, rebutting them one point at a time.

Of course, this requires a degree of cold-bloodedness. It’s easy to get sucked into the argument, to take it personally, to lose your cool in the face of insults and foolish counterargument. As tactics go, it’s both emotionally wearing and difficult to do well.

But I still do it. It’s not the only way I pursue activist goals, but as a tactic, it works too well to abandon, even if it exacts a toll. The issues, after all, are urgent, and time is running out.